"What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr. Darcy! - There is nothing like dancing after all. - I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies."
"Certainly, Sir; - and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. - Every savage can dance."
It's not surprising that Jane Austen's Mr Darcy, a product of a literate, aristocratic and above all language-centred society, should feel discomfort with dancing. In his snooty dismissal of its value to civilised life is an unspoken fear: he quite rightly suspects that there is an innate quality in dance that subverts the realities which language seeks to legislate - the ordered layers of the class system, for example, or the rational syntax of an ordered (colonial) society in which everyone knows his or her place, itself rigidly predetermined by race and birth.
Although we're a long way from 19th century England, dance still holds that subversive possibility. Partly it's the inescapable eroticism of dance, its insistence on the physical reality of the human body. Dance imbricates the certainties of language with its own language of gestural ambiguities. No matter how pure and effortless a movement might seem to be, those watching are still aware of the dancer's weight landing on a stage, the heaviness of a body in tension with its dynamic flight. Even more insistently than in the theatre, the metaphor of dance grounds itself on literal fact: the body on stage performs, and the body off-stage watches, responds, and generates the multiple narratives that individual imagination brings to performance.
This might seem to be the absolute basis of performance, the irreducible earth from which all else grows. But a lot of contemporary dance seems to zero in on even these assumptions, holding up the relationship between performer and audience to relentless and fascinating scrutiny. Inert - a collaboration between dancer /choreographers Simon Ellis and Shannon Bott, designer Scott Mitchell, sound designer David Corbet and videographer Cormac Lally - is a radical example.
Inert is performed by two dancers for an audience of two, which is interesting enough as a proposition. My curiosity was piqued still further when I was asked for my height (why could they possibly need that detail?) I confess to feeling slightly nervous beforehand as I waited in the anteroom with my co-audient at North Melbourne Town Hall, knowing already that this would probably be a uniquely naked experience. After all, when you are part of an audience, you are - or at least, you feel that you are - invisible. As John Berger points out, the gaze is a powerful authority. What happens to that authority, that entitled sense of selfhood, when the artwork looks back, and it can't be looking at anyone except you?
Even so, as the usher led me into the room where the performance took place, there was also an sense of immense privilege. Effectively, a dancer was to dance for me alone. It was like being the Sun King (if you can imagine the North Melbourne Town Hall as a kind of Versailles...oh, never mind...) This mixture of contradictory feelings, disempowerment and privilege, was made more complex still as we were each led to vertical metal slabs, perhaps two metres apart. These looked like nothing so much as operating tables, with footrests on which we were asked to stand. Then we were both given cushions to place behind our heads and headphones to cover our ears. From then on, we were uniquely alone: for the rest of the performance, I was aware of everybody in the room except my co-audience member.
The effect of all this preparation was twofold: I was wholly passive, my arms hanging down, my eyes directed forward. It seemed impossible to move (and there was no desire to, either). It was almost infantalising, like being in hospital. At the same time, I was acutely aware of the weight and shape of my own body, and of the dancer before me (Simon Ellis), who began his dance as an ambient electronic soundscape began to fill my ears. Mainly, as if my gaze was riveted in front of me, I watched Ellis, although I was aware of Shannon Bott dancing the same moves. It was almost as if it was discourteous not to watch "my" dancer all the time, although my gaze flickered across the room. For their part, the dancers performed solely for their chosen audient, except for one moment where each acknowledged the other, glancing across the room.
For the first few minutes I felt very exposed. I was sensitised to the weight of the smallest gesture - my own as well as the dancer's. Should I meet the dancer's eyes? Or was that presuming too far on a relationship that was, after all, between strangers? Was I trying too hard not to look self-conscious, too obviously breathing to relax myself? But after a while, I lost that self-consciousness and found a deeper awareness not mediated by shyness; I became absorbed in the dance itself. My sense of self-presence was subtly alienated and sharpened by the headphones, which provided a kind of privacy; and yet at the same time I was unable to forget the weight of my body, that I took up as much space as the dancers.
Then Ellis approached me, and there was a brief moment of something rather like terror - was he going to touch me? (Why should that be terrifying? Or was it pleasure? Or both?) But no, he grasped the slab and began to push it very slowly backwards, until I was aware that there was a screen above my face, less than a metre above me, and that images were flickering across it.
These were intimate images of Ellis: close-ups of his hands, filmed so you could see the grainy texture of the skin, or of his face, smiling at me (no, not smiling at me, smiling at the camera, at someone else, at some other time). They were accompanied by a voice whispering urgently into my ears, speaking obliquely of a relationship, all of it addressed to a "you", that might have been "me", although I knew it wasn't, it was someone else. But it was said to me all the same. This was, interestingly, the most intimate part of the performance: the filmed images permitted me a proper invisibility and distance, I suppose. And now my body was floating in space, in some other dimension, fully aware, fully relaxed. The words became more insistent, even a little hostile, and then I was looking at an image of feet hanging, two shiny black shoes suspended above a skirting board, and for a moment I thought, oh no, this is death, he has hanged himself; but then I realised it was an extreme slomo shot of Ellis jumping.
Finally, when the monologue had finished, Ellis slowly turned the slab to the vertical again. This time I was wholly aware of my changing centre of gravity, of the heaviness of my feet and the way the organs inside my body shifted. There was a brief dance, and then the lights went out. I wasn't sure if I should clap - one person clapping in an empty room can seem much louder than a whole auditorium - and was led out into the world. During the performance the skies had burst and big fat drops of rain were falling outside the window. I was so disoriented, a feeling that persisted for at least an hour, that I thought at first that the sound of the raindrops was another performance. Which perhaps it was. God's own installation.
What stays with me is the enormous tact of this performance: it was an act of radical destabilisation that was never anything but gentle. It demonstrated that intimacy is, more than anything else, the act of noticing details, of sharpening the gaze from the general to the acutely particular. When I walked out, I ruminated on the final words: This is not real. Of course it was real, in the same ways, and with the same contradictions, that the whole world is real, and the intimacy wasn't wholly false. But of course it was a fiction as well.
It's hard to think of a greater contrast to Inert than Chunky Move's spectacular Mortal Engine. Unusually for Gideon Obarzanek, who has been the among the most restlessly experimental minds attacking the question of spatial relationships between audience and performers, Mortal Engine is a straight proscenium arch show, with the audience front-on to a steeply raked stage, that is itself framed within the darkened space of a theatre. So far, one might think, so conventional.
But of course, Chunky Move is never that straightforward. Mortal Engine is in fact a continuation of Obarzanek's collaboration with the technical magician Frieder Weiß, who designed the interactive system that drives the light and sound in this show. The first fruit of their work was the solo dance Glow, a lyrical gem that evolved disturbing and beautiful choreographies of body and light. Glow, performed on a square mat in what was effectively a boxing ring, had a visceral intimacy and elegance of form that is here opened out, with phenomenal sensual success if not without a concomitant loss, into spectacle.
The radical alienation of Mortal Engine begins before the performance starts, in the low lighting of the auditorium. It is dark enough to fool the eyes, for individual faces to be thrown into relief by the yellow light against pools of blackness. In stark contrast to Inert, the audience is invisible, hidden in shadow. The dancers emerge from this shadow like primeval life forms creeping out of the id, falling down the steep face of the stage in their self-generated pools of light and shadow.
The show's dream-like feeling is underlined by a series of almost domestic sequences that punctuate the dance. A couple seem to be lying in a double bed (actually a vertical wall that rises from the foot of the set), turning in the blind, clumsy intimacy of sleep. The scenes seem like those infrared films taken of sleeping people, and carry a similar sense of voyeuristic invasiveness, except that as they move strange things happen - in one sequence they writhe away from gelatinous shadows, with an amplified noise like damp sticking plaster, and in another they are possessed by a field of electric energy, which explodes out of their bodies in a visible field.
Mortal Engine is, as its title indicates, a choreography of dualities - male and female, waking and dream, self and other, flesh and machine, light and shadow - moving in a constant state of flux and tension. Most of it is characterised by ambiguity: in this world, a dancer can "throw" light just as he or she throws a shadow. But at other times images evolve with a sinister directedness: near the beginning, a dancer is menaced by a many-legged shadow, a humanoid mass that swallows her and from which she fights free, only to be swallowed again. In another, a woman lies on top of a man, pinning down his every movement, his shadow blotted out by hers.
The vivifying sense of tension is missing in a sequence that is pure light show. It features spectacular sound-sensitive graphics but, without the complexity of the human body, they remain just a retinal explosion. It's frenetically brilliant, but lacks the visceral connection that otherwise dramatically emphasises the emotional textures - including the alienations - of Obarzanek's choreography. The danger of spectacle is, of course, that it remains merely spectacle.
There are sequences that are blindingly beautiful - dancers moving across the white stage as little flecks of shadow fall down from their gestures, like trails of confetti, or two dancers moving through grids of light that move chaotically where their bodies touch. And the final laser sequence, in which dancers control the lighting with their arms, carves the auditorium into strange fluid chambers defined by green light. After all this distancing, this ocular estrangement, we are fleetingly in a small room with the dancer, enclosed by rippling walls of darkness. It's deeply unsettling, at once intimate and alien. As if, as it almost seemed to be in the beginning, the dance emerges from our own dreaming.
Top: Simon Ellis in Inert. Photo: Nat Cursio; Bottom: Charmene Yap in Mortal Engine. Photo: Andrew Curtis.
Inert, choreographed and performed by Shannon Bott and Simon Ellis, designed by Scott Mitchell, sound by David Corbet, videography/editing by Cormac Lally. North Melbourne Town Hall until March 15.
Mortal Engine, directed and choreographed by Gideon Obarzanek, interactive system design Frieder Weiss, laser and sound artist Robin Fox, set design by Richard Dinnen and Gideon Obarzanek, lighting by Damien Cooper. Dancers (rotating): Kristy Ayre / Sara Black / Amber Haines / Antony Hamilton / Marnie Palomares / Lee Serle / James Shannon / Adam Synnott / Charmene Yap. Chunky Move @ the Malthouse Theatre, closed.